Women get a lot of mixed messages when it comes to sexuality. On one hand, shows like Broad City, Insecure, Girls, and more depict frank portrayals of the joys, pitfalls, and complications of women’s sexuality, and encourage women to be open about their needs and desires. On the other hand, women are literally getting killed for turning down men’s advances. It’s no wonder we have conflicting feelings about being seen as sexually confident.
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The shame and stigma surrounding women’s sexuality actually affects the choices they make around having safe sex. According to Trojan’s new Trust Yourself survey, 97 percent of women think it’s socially acceptable for men to carry condoms, while just 79 percent think it’s socially acceptable for women to do so. Women who said they were uncomfortable having the conversation about condoms said it was because they were embarrassed (54 percent), and that body image affects their sexual health decisions (70 percent).
At a panel hosted by Trojan last night in downtown New York City, Dr. Logan Levkoff sat down with Insecure actress Amanda Seales, model and designer Nadia Aboulhosn, and safe sex advocate Alba Alvarado to talk about women’s sexual health, confidence, and how we can empower women to listen to themselves when they make sexual choices. Beforehand, ELLE.com sat down with Seales to talk about the issues, and why men sometimes need to sit down and shut up.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved in Trojan’s #TrustYourself campaign?
Trojan came to me because they wanted somebody who was outspoken, and who could bring some humor and levity to a conversation that easily becomes very heavy. Because it should—it’s a heavy conversation, don’t get it twisted. But sometimes humor is able to help ease strong messages into small minds. So that’s something I’ve made the mandate of my humor and my brand, and anywhere that I can do that in a place that’s going to bring information and education to people, I want to be a part of that. So when Trojan said they were doing this, and that it was about women and owning their sexual health, I was like, count me in.
Was there a specific experience in your life that made you realize women’s sexual confidence was an issue, or made you passionate about it?
Any woman who’s ever had sex has dealt with this. Literally I don’t know any example. If you haven’t dealt with this, it’s like, kudos! Lucky for you! I came up in hip-hop as well, which often times the lyrics can be misogynistic, and can be very objectifying of women, and you can take on those images and those lyrics to yourself and it does create insecurities. It does create questions about your own sexual confidence. Because I think a lot of women put all the weight in the hands of men in terms of being the aggressor, in terms of taking care of contraception. And we are changing as women. A lot of things are going to change along with that, and part of that is our responsibility and having accountability for our choices, and not having to feel like we have to be at the behest of men’s choices. Even moves in the sexual space. I know a lot of women who have literally slept with somebody just because they were like, ‘I just didn’t want to make them feel bad.’
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That’s such a common experience! You think, ‘Well, it’d be awkward to leave now.’
Right! And it’s because we live in a patriarchal society that’s said we have to lean toward letting men lead in that situation. Your sexual confidence isn’t just about having the confidence to say, ‘Hey, have you been tested?’ or ‘Yeah, I’m not sleeping with you without a condom.’ It’s also about having the confidence to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t really doing it for me. I’m not a hole. I’m a human.’
So much of that, too, is that it’s dangerous to reject men, and women are afraid of the consequences.
We’re more concerned with preserving men’s egos oftentimes than protecting our own bodies. Which is what patriarchy is. Our bodies are not as important, far too often. So what Trojan is doing is encouraging women to rise up and be strong and solid in the protection of their bodies. Love is a beautiful thing, but love doesn’t cure gonorrhea.
Condoms have been around and in discreet packages for a very long time. Why do you think sexually active women still feel shy about carrying a condom with them?
Because carrying around a condom says you’re waiting for sex and you’re a slut. Which we all know is false. But it’s still attached to the brainwashing. This country, before we were revolutionaries we were puritans. There’s always a root, things don’t just come out of nowhere, and bad habits are really hard to break. The first British settlers, outside of the tobacco folks, say women are not sexual, only used for reproductive purposes. That continues. You see shows like Handmaid’s Tale and see how scary that would be. You look at other countries where that’s happening. And even if it’s not as pervasive in America, it’s still invasive in our confidence. There’s still this underlying message that says sex is dirty, that only certain women are sexually free, and that if you were married you wouldn’t be doing this.
I’ve even heard from women who grew up learning that, even if they were married, they shouldn’t act like they enjoy sex with their husband too much.
Right, because you’re a whore if you like it too much….
Race also plays into this a lot. The way white women are sexualized and allowed to be sexually free is much different than for Black women and other women of color. How does that come into the conversation, or is it more about women in general?
It’s never just about women in general. That’s just the reality. The intersectionality is so part of the conversation, and often times it gets left out. We’re not on the same playing field, and even if we are on the same playing field, we don’t have the same padding. Some of us are just getting body shots. Don’t leave us out!
Listen, Black women were brought to this country as slaves, and were made to be at the use of making new slaves or bodies to serve their masters’ sexual appetites. That’s it. So that was the overlying objectification of Black women for a very long time. It’s just another tool of oppression. Tools of oppression are not factual. At the end of the day, Black women were considered ‘exotic’ and fetishized, and there’s all these things that are attached to Black womanhood that have nothing to do with Black women. When you’ve brought people to a place and used them for only one purpose, that turns into all you are. I am somebody who has always been very vocal about sex. Not even because it was a mission, but that living your truth and being honest was the best thing to do. I’m on Insecure and there’s a lot of sexual freedom on the show because it’s a part of life. And if we don’t normalize [women having sex], we will continue to, by omission, support the stigma.
So much of what keeps women from being confident about their sexuality are these patriarchal power structures you’ve talked about. What do you think men and people in power can do to help women own their sexuality?
Shut up when we’re talking! And speak up when you hear folks talking incorrectly. Or just speak up in general in support of this. I’m always appreciative of men who are like, ‘Yeah, that’s stupid,’ and it requires men to get over themselves. That’s a hard thing for a lot of guys to do, because empowering women somehow becomes disempowering to men, which is not the case. It’s just creating more power. Empowerment is simply based on education for a lot of folks. You don’t have to be that educated to understand this education, which is the simple fact that sex is a basic human right that everyone has access to, and should not be judged for if you’re doing it responsibly and honestly.